Healing your relationship with food is crucial for eating disorder recovery and treating autoimmune conditions. We all carry our childhood experiences with us. My mother struggled with her weight for most of my life. I was an athlete and was in decent shape growing up, but hearing her speak poorly of her body planted one seed, of which there were many, for a negative body image. I am not blaming my mother for this. She was the product of an ideal she struggled to align with, and her negative comments were not directed at me. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line I began believing that the body I had was not thin enough, strong enough, curvy enough, etc. I began to believe I was not enough, and this extended way beyond my body.
The insecurity that builds from a poor self-image is difficult to overcome, and our egos work very hard to keep that state of fear thriving. I used to be equal parts painfully insecure and harshly judgmental. These “qualities” fed on each other. My insecure thoughts longed for attention and validation, and what easier way is there to feel a sense of self-importance than to judge others? This behavior would create a momentary sense of superiority followed by a plummet back to world of shame, where I felt I belonged.
Since most of these thoughts were never spoken out loud, it did not cause a lot of direct conflict with other people (I stress direct because it clearly caused indirect harm). However, this emotional push and pull created an exceptionally unhealthy relationship with food.
I remember seeing a Foucault Pendulum at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on an elementary school field trip. I was fascinated by how it continued to swing all day, powered by magnets, and slowly knocked over small wooden pegs as the earth turned beneath it. Unfortunately what is fascinating at a science museum is not always a beautiful metaphor for life. Years of battling bulimia and twisting myself into a pretzel trying to get everyone to like me revealed that I was living in extremes. This was absolutely the case with food. My pendulum swung from binging on cheesy tater tots to restricting every type of food with the slightest bit of negative press. I would tell friends all about the latest cleanse I was on, giving lengthy explanations about its benefits. Meanwhile, if I had a particularly anxiety-ridden day, I’d go to the drive thru and stuff my face with fries, setting off a binge-purge cycle. There was no middle ground. No healthy centered space. Insecurity led to judgment of both myself and others, and the pendulum continued to swing between the two.
When you are a person of extremes you don’t enjoy taking baby steps. You latch onto an idea and you’re all in the next day. This happened with relationships, careers, and even cross country moves, to name a few. Case in point: I read one book about the paleo diet and made a made a big production about not eating bread to my family. I tried unsuccessfully to cut everything “unhealthy” out of my diet overnight. This is a recipe for disaster for someone in recovery from an eating disorder, especially if they have not yet faced their emotional demons.
*To be clear, I do follow a gluten/dairy free diet with LOTS of plants today because it has significantly reduced my Hashimoto’s symptoms, but it took time to make this adjustment in a healthy manner.
Below are the steps that helped me heal my relationship with food over the past year
Healing Your Relationship With Food #1 – Learn how to cook
- I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times, and you might be rolling your eyes. I once had that same snarky outlook. The thing is, it doesn’t require knowing how to julienne vegetables or make a perfect port wine reduction to throw together a healthy meal. What I have learned about cooking is that it empowers me to choose whole, healthy foods to nourish my body and my mind. By cooking, I take control of what I eat. Also, to make matters easier, I purchased one of these bad boys on Cyber Monday and it has changed my life. I can no longer use the lack of time excuse for cooking at home. (*please note this model was on sale, the less expensive models are just as amazing)
Healing Your Relationship With Food #2 – Find an option that works best for you
- I was overwhelmed by the amount of information out there about clean eating, what diet is best, and what diets are “evil.” I have never come across so much conflicting information in my life, and it was disheartening to see one school of thought demonizing another. I tried several avenues including, but not limited to, eating for my blood type, Whole 30, Paleo, and Autoimmune Paleo, before finding what works best for me. I find it important to not be so steadfast in your dedication to a “movement” in the nutrition field that you stop listening to your body. For example, I gave up all grains for several months. My body did not react well. I was lethargic, I couldn’t concentrate, and I could barely make it through my workouts. Despite my worsening state, I insisted on leaving grains out of my diet because I read multiple sources preaching how terrible they are for you. I am not suggesting there is not evidence to support those claims (obviously there is evidence for almost every variety of nutritional theories), but I am strongly suggesting that one diet does not fit every person. We are all bio-individual. I reintroduced organic quinoa into my diet and felt better almost instantly. So please give different methods a try. I personally recommend trying Whole 30 to determine what foods trigger you, and build your best diet from there. I had a an excellent experience with that protocol. If you have an autoimmune disease, you may want to then transition into the AIP diet to further reduce inflammation in your body. That being said, you do you. I really struggled with AIP and noticed that it triggered some eating disorder demons lurking in the shadows. I may try it again in the future, but for now, I have found a healthy balance that works for me. Just pick a place to start, make a commitment to your health, and continue to listen to your body.
Healing Your Relationship With Food #3 -Revise your deep rooted thoughts about food
- Real food is not your enemy. Your ego – that loud, negative, contradticting voice in your head – that is the enemy. You know, the one that says “you deserve that chocolate bar, you’ve starved yourself all week” then immediately following your indulgence changes its tune to “you are disgusting, you better go run 5 miles and live on salad for the rest of the week.” That voice clearly doesn’t have your best interest in mind. When you hear that voice starting to get louder, try focusing one of the following positive food thoughts:
- I am willing to take the time to nurture my body
- This food is providing the nutrients needed for healing to take place
- This food is making me stronger
- I love and respect my body
You might think these affirmations sound silly. I certainly did. I am eating my words though (pun intended) because they really do help.
Healing Your Relationship With Food #4 -Eat for physical hunger, not emotional
- This is HUGE, and it’s something I admittedly still need to remind myself to do. We all know the difference between being hungry and eating because you’re bored/sad/lonely/frustrated/depressed/etc. Food becomes your enemy because you turn to it to fill an emotional void that only your self-love and acceptance can fill. This is difficult to accept, let alone implement, when your self-love is all but nonexistent. I was stuck in this battle with food for decades, and what helped me to get out of the rut was facing my emotional issues and learning to listen to my body. The cycle of bulimia trained me to practically starve myself then eat so much that I was physically ill. I never listened to what my body needed. I have learned, over time, to know the signs of true hunger (not starvation), and I choose to eat healthy foods when those come. It was at erratic moments early on, but now that I have a solid routine I get hungry around the same times each day.
Healing Your Relationship With Food #4 – Practice mindful eating
- Learn to be present when you’re eating. Take your time, savor each bite, avoid distractions, consider planning meals in advance, and be thankful for the nourishment. Check out this article on mindful eating.
Healing Your Relationship With Food #6 -Be open to changes & trust your gut (literally and figuratively)
- Once you have begun to heal your relationship with food, you will be able to more openly listen to your body. This process is challenging but it should not feel like torture. You will know the difference between feeling more sluggish than usual as you cut out exceptionally sugary foods and feeling perpetually lethargic. Only you can tell when you have to adjust your diet, and I strongly encourage that you work with a functional physician and nutritionist as you explore what works best. This is especially recommended if you’re dealing with autoimmunity. I had to be mindful of my blood sugar, hormones, and nutritional deficiencies while making changes to my diet.